Nova Scotia

‘If we don’t tell our stories, who will?’: African Nova Scotians share joy, struggles, resilience

About 40 years ago, a woman named Ardith Pye put a tape recorder in front of Lena Mae West and her granddaughter, Florence, and they sang a song together called The Great Judgment Morning.

It’s a special piece of family history — captured on an old cassette tape — that Florence Mae West is thankful to still have.

“[I’m] just completely in awe and grateful that this lady, Sister Pye, not only did recordings of myself and Nanny, but she went on to do numerous recordings of some of the other precious souls,” West told CBC Radio’s Mainstreet Halifax.

The recording was taken in November of 1984, West said, when Pye came to her family’s home on Gottingen Street on the corner of Uniacke Square in Halifax.

She said Pye would often visit families to record the voices of local community leaders, especially those involved with the church in Africville.

Lena Mae West raised her granddaughter, Florence, and taught her to sing spirituals. (Cassidy Chisholm/CBC)

Lena Mae West was one of those community leaders. Her daughters formed the singing group the West Sisters and would often lead the congregation at the Seaview Baptist Church when there was no pastor visiting. 

“Even when the pastors were there, they knew that they could always count on Sister Lena to come up and lead us in a few spirituals, as well as her daughters that she taught … and granddaughters later on in life,” Florence Mae West said.

West’s story of her grandmother’s dedication to the church and her efforts to pass on the art of singing is one of many that will be shared at an event happening at the Bus Stop Theatre in Halifax on Friday. 

It’s called Our Legacy: Many Voices, Many Stories, and is meant to celebrate and pay tribute to African Nova Scotians who came before — their resilience, their struggles and their joys — through stories and songs.

“If we don’t tell our stories, who will? We have to reclaim our truth and our existence,” Shelley Fashan, who is organizing the event, told Mainstreet.

LISTEN | Florence Mae West singing with her grandmother:

Mainstreet NS21:11Storytelling event to serve as tribute to Black Nova Scotian ancestors

Host Jeff Douglas is joined by Shelley Fashan and Florence West ahead of their event \”Our Legacy: Many Voices, Many Stories, happening at the Bus Stop Theatre in Halifax on Friday. The event will celebrate Black families and their stories and songs.

Fashan said there’s a lot of generational history and untold stories that could be lost if they’re not shared within the community. 

The event will host several speakers from African Nova Scotian communities, including West, Linda Carvery, members of North Preston’s Fraser family, and members of East Preston’s Thomas family. 

Fashan said West’s story of her grandmother was actually part of the inspiration for the event. The pair met at a Dairy Queen last year, and as they got to talking, it came up that West wanted to share her grandmother’s story with others.

“I think we can do something about that,” Fashan recalled saying at the time. 

A few months later, Fashan had the idea for the storytelling event as a way to share the legacy of Black families.

A black-and-white photo of a woman holding a small child.
Lena Mae West and her granddaughter, Florence Mae West, when she was just a young girl. (Cassidy Chisholm/CBC)

West was on board immediately. She will be sharing stories of her grandmother and the spirituals she learned as a teenager.

“That’s what our family has paid a close attention to over the years after my Nanny’s passing — to stay close to the traditional way that these songs are being sung so they can be passed on in their original form, which is very important,” she said.

She said having a record of these stories allows them to live on.

“Back in the day, when my grandmother and a lot of these seniors in these communities were doing their worshipping and building that legacy, there was not a whole lot of recording,” West said.

“So we, right now in our age group, feel the obligation to continue and to spread that word about our legacies because we don’t want it to die out. We want that legacy to continue and to share that.”

Our Legacy: Many Voices, Many Stories is set to take place at the Bus Stop Theatre in Halifax on Friday at 7 p.m. Tickets are available online.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.
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